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Breaking down the Championship 4 Cup drivers

Rick Allen and Steve Letarte discuss the Round of 8 finale in the Cup playoffs, as Martinsville sees fireworks between Alex Bowman and Denny Hamlin, as Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., and Hamlin advance.

Kyle Larson looks to put an exclamation point on one of the greatest seasons in U.S. motorsports history.

Chase Elliott looks to successfully defend his NASCAR Cup Series championship (although he himself wouldn’t term it that way).

Denny Hamlin looks to capture stock car racing’s biggest prize after 16 seasons.

Martin Truex Jr. looks to claim a second Cup title - this time, for one of the sport’s elite teams.

One of them will reach their goal in Sunday’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock Premium).

The highest finisher among the Championship 4 wins it all. Since the Cup Series adopted its current playoff format in 2014, the champion has won the season finale each year.

How do the four title contenders shape up entering Sunday?

Kyle Larson - No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

  • Age 29 from Elk Grove, California
  • First Championship 4 appearance
  • Best Cup points finish: Sixth in 2019
  • This season: Leads Cup Series in multiple categories, including race wins (nine), stage wins (17), top-five finishes (19), top-10 finishes (25) and laps led (2,474)
  • Cup career at Phoenix: Winless in 14 starts (best finish - second, March 2017), average finish of 11.6

Five of Larson’s nine wins this season have come with the 750-horsepower rules package that’s being used Sunday.

Additionally, his No. 5 pit crew remains tops this season and in the playoffs on average times for four-tire stops. Per Racing Insights, the No. 5 team’s average time this season on those stops is 13.64 seconds. That time has dropped to 13.37 seconds (tied with Chase Elliott’s No. 9 pit crew) in the playoffs.

However, the No. 5 team can’t afford mistakes like the ones they had at Phoenix in March.

Larson’s car failed pre-race inspection twice, sending him to the rear for the start. Then in the race, Larson drew two pit road speeding penalties that forced him twice to rally back to the front. He ultimately finished seventh after late-race handling woes caused him to fade.

Should inspection issues arise again, Larson can recover with a fast car - but an ill-timed penalty in the pits can doom him.

Chase Elliott - No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

  • Age 25 from Dawsonville, Georgia
  • Second Championship 4 appearance
  • Reigning Cup Series champion
  • This season: Two race wins, six stage wins, 14 top-five finishes, 20 top-10 finishes, 858 laps led
  • Cup career at Phoenix: One win (2020 championship race) in 11 starts, average finish of 11.2

In hindsight, Elliott’s breakthrough win at Martinsville to reach last year’s Championship 4 seemed to be the final obstacle he had to get past before becoming the sport’s standard-bearer.

The following week at Phoenix, he started at the rear after his car failed inspection twice but still led 153 of 312 laps on his way to a title-clinching victory.

Last year taught him to embrace those big moments and all the pressure that goes with them. His mindset - ready for anything - is the biggest thing in his favor.

He also has crew chief Alan Gustafson in his corner. Gustafson has four Phoenix wins under his belt, including last year’s finale win. The other three Championship 4 crew chiefs - Cliff Daniels (Larson), Chris Gabehart (Hamlin) and James Small (Truex Jr.) - have a combined two Phoenix wins.

But, like Hamlin and Truex, Elliott must overcome the aura of dominance that Larson and the No. 5 team has created for much of the season. Out of Larson’s nine wins, Elliott finished second four times.

Denny Hamlin - No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

  • Age 40 from Chesterfield, Virginia
  • Fourth Championship 4 appearance
  • Best Cup points finish: Second in 2010
  • This season: Two race wins, 10 stage wins, 18 top-five finishes, 24 top-10 finishes, 1,502 laps led
  • Cup career at Phoenix: Two wins in 32 starts (March 2012, 2019 playoffs), average finish of 10.8

After a winless regular season, Hamlin finally converted his performance into wins to push him through the first two rounds and then maintained enough consistency to reach the Championship 4 on points.

For the fourth time in the current playoff format, Hamlin will have an opportunity to win the title. It’s the last box to check in a stellar career that includes 46 Cup wins - three of them in the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500.

But following his post-race controversies with non-playoff driver Alex Bowman last week at Martinsville, Hamlin must focus on the bigger picture during Sunday’s finale.

With a 39-car field, there may be times where Hamlin is in a dicey spot among non-playoff drivers racing for trophies and/or jobs for next season. If a clash ensues, Hamlin has to drop it - immediately - and carry on.

Meanwhile, he and his No. 11 team must avoid faltering in the title race for a third consecutive year.

In 2019 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the team put too much tape on the front grille of Hamlin’s car during a late green-flag stop. Subsequent overheating forced him to pit again and relegated him to a 10th-place finish.

Last year at Phoenix, his car struggled on overall speed against the other three title contenders (Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano). He finished fourth behind them and failed to lead a single lap.

Martin Truex Jr. - No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

  • Age 41 from Mayetta, New Jersey
  • Fifth Championship 4 appearance
  • 2017 Cup Series champion
  • This season: Four race wins, five stage wins, 12 top-five finishes, 19 top-10 finishes, 793 laps led
  • Cup career at Phoenix: One win (March 2021) in 31 starts, average finish of 15.4

During these playoffs, Truex has not particularly stood out. While he earned an opening-round win in September at Richmond Raceway, he has only led 99 laps in the postseason. In comparison, Larson has led 908 laps; Hamlin has led 681; and Elliott has led 521.

All four of Truex’s victories this season have come with the 750-horsepower package in play Sunday, including his triumph at Phoenix in March, which saw him end a 29-race winless streak.

Truex’s last seven Cup wins have come on tracks using the 750 package. That run includes a September 2019 win at Richmond, plus two wins at Martinsville (Oct. 2019, June 2020).

With that in mind, an argument can be made for Truex being a sleeper to win Sunday. One could also argue he’s got the least pressure of all the Championship 4.

Larson is the dominant driver in 2021, but he’s never been in a situation like this. Elliott wants to keep his crown. And Hamlin desperately wants to finally take it himself.

For Truex and the No. 19 team, being a loose bunch Sunday might be an advantage.